Steve Austin “Wins” the Royal Rumble (1997 Week 2)

Also, Eddie Guerrero vs. Dean Malenko, The Four Horsemen, and more BWO Drama

About a quarter of the way through an interminable tag team match pitting Goldust and Marc Mero against Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Jerry “The King” Lawler, I paused the episode of Raw and said “This is going to be hard” to myself. Not watching wrestling; watching wrestling is easy, even if it’s not great. What was going to be hard was making meaning out of this kind of wrestling, the stuff that has been forgotten, and often for good reason.

I’ll stop short of calling it meaningless. While that tag match and the Intercontinental Championship match between Helmsley and Goldust at the Royal Rumble  felt like they’d never end, everybody involved put in labor and suffered through the wear and tear of a wrestling match. They just did it for no reason other than to put over how aggressive Goldust was after Helmsley tried to woo Marlena from him. Mero was involved because he had nothing to do in the aftermath of his feud with Helmsley, and Lawler was involved because he was pro-Helmsley and asked Goldust if he was queer back in December, “No” being Goldust’s resounding reply.

The Greatest Year in the History of Our Sport

Outside of Goldust denying his queerness, all of that reads like word salad, which is pretty much what WWE’s midcard was throughout the Attitude Era. I’ve been watching a lot of WWF from this general time period, and sometime around 1998, the midcard and the Intercontinental Championship scene ceases to build future stars. It’s like watching people struggle through purgatory, the last people to make it out being Triple H and The Rock.

Last week I said that the nWo was a terrible stable, but look at this match—Nice Guy and Golden Guy vs. Rich Guy and King—and tell me that they weren’t more appealing in some way. Besides which, Nitro was much faster paced and had way more variety than Raw, which has a tendency to feel slow even here when it’s an hour long show. But this week changes things for the WWF, as it’s Royal Rumble week. So let’s talk about Steve Austin.

The Royal Rumble

This is a weird Royal Rumble. Without the main story that runs through it, you’re stuck with a strange mishmash of the WWF’s midcard and luchadors from AAA, who the largely generous Alamodome crowd are not thrilled to have dumped on them either here or in an earlier trios match. This Rumble is before the match became the hour long, intricately booked spectaculars of recent vintage, so your number one and number two, in the workrate slot, are Crush and Ahmed Johnson, who at least have beef. The clock is broken, so guys just come out until it’s fixed. The fifth man out is “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

He is the lifeblood of this match. Even before Bret Hart comes out at 21, he makes everything engaging. He threatened in his promo to throw out “29 pieces of trash,” which is the verse he’d repeat for nearly every Rumble thereafter, and eliminated 10, a third of the field.

There are, I think, two things a Royal Rumble is capable of. The first is confirming the order of things in WWE, like when Hulk Hogan won a few early ones or an established main eventer wins so they can point at the WrestleMania sign. The second, less commonly explored thing a Royal Rumble can do is actually make somebody, which is what happens here with Austin, who had to go through growing pains after his 1996 King of the Ring win to get to this point, primed and ready to leap to the top of the World Wrestling Federation.

They accomplish this in three phases. The first begins when he enters and starts throwing people out. Austin empties the ring a couple of times, doing push-ups and checking an invisible watch while he takes a breather. For awhile the Rumble clock is his friend, allowing him to establish that he is unquestionably the man when it comes to this level of competition.

WWF Steve Austin Royal Rumble 1997

Among the 15 men who enter between Austin and Hart are Jake Roberts and Savio Vega. This is significant because both were rivals of his in 1996—Austin beat Roberts to win the 1996 King of the Ring and cut his Austin 3:16 promo after the fact, and Savio Vega was Austin’s first real feud in the WWF, beating him in the Caribbean Strap Match that served as the feud’s climax. Roberts lasts 1:10 and Vega lasts 0:46, both eliminated by Austin. He is way beyond those guys now, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise.

He’s not beyond Bret Hart, who enters to a ring empty of everyone except Austin. They go blow for blow until Hart takes advantage of Austin’s fatigue. The next guy in is Lawler, who lasts four seconds, which gives us a nearly uninterrupted three minutes of Hart vs. Austin. The two had been feuding since Survivor Series 1996, where Hart won a match Austin had goaded him into. This Rumble was part of an unusually great long-term storyline, a progressive build that saw Austin gain a psychological edge on Hart, who began to bemoan the WWF as “a lawless land.” The look on Austin’s face when the buzzer goes off might be one of Austin’s finest moments.

The ring fills up again, but nothing stops Hart and Austin from fighting each other. They are in the background of nearly every shot of this match, grinding out the 21:12 Hart is in the ring. This is remarkable for two reasons: first, most Rumble blood feuds involve self-elimination. Second, it gives an otherwise entirely shapeless match its form. There are big stars in this match, there are dark horses in it, but from the moment Austin and Hart meet, it is clear that those men are there to fill space, that only two of them have a chance.

The company did such a good job of establishing Hart as a man with a legitimate grievance, a babyface with a mission, that he was the obvious winner with an obstacle in his path. Austin’s elimination is so simple. He loses sight of Hart while beating up Fake Diesel, Hart sees it, and that’s it. Point proven, ticket to WrestleMania punched. But the referees are busy across the ring with a fight between Mankind and Terry Funk.

So Austin slides back in.

This is the start of phase three, the crucial one. It happens in the blink of an eye, too. Austin eliminates Vader and The Undertaker. Hart eliminates Fake Diesel. The Alamodome acts like that’s it, but Austin dumps Hart. The referees, ignorant to everything, award Austin the match. Hart snaps, grabbing the officials, screaming at McMahon to do something. Nobody can. Austin has won the match in the strangest possible fashion, screwing over the guy who eliminated him in the process. It preserves Hart’s mission while making Austin a legitimate contender. It’s ingenious booking, a spot that powers the main event scene of the WWF through the first quarter of the year.

The Four Horsemen

Nitro features an Eddie Guerrero/Dean Malenko match. It’s very good, but a lot of Nitro’s airtime is devoted to the ongoing saga of Chris Benoit, Woman, and Kevin Sullivan. It should probably be addressed.

I’m one of those people who loved Chris Benoit as a wrestler but has a hard time watching his work after the 2007 double-murder and suicide in which he killed his wife and son. I don’t have an issue acknowledging his skill as a wrestler, but I feel like watching him wrestle has the flavor of rubbernecking at an accident on the road—like one can pick out which chairshot or headbutt “did it.” So when he comes up in this column, I won’t open that door. This is the one time.

His wife, Nancy, had a long, notable career in professional wrestling as the manager Woman. Before she began dating Chris Benoit, she was married to Kevin Sullivan. The kayfabe relationship between Nancy and Chris became a real one, causing Nancy and Kevin to divorce. At this point in the messy, admittedly still pretty fun angle, Benoit and Woman are occasionally absent from their duties in the Four Horsemen, an issue that causes Debra, the wife of Steve “Mongo” McMichael, to stump for Jeff Jarrett as his replacement. To accomplish that this week, Jarrett beats Benoit when Mongo accidentally hits Benoit with a briefcase. It is certainly a professional wrestling match.

WCW Four Horsemen 1997

This storyline is terrible, as Debra McMichael might be the worst promo in WCW, issuing petty bon mots about how terrible Benoit is and how ugly Woman is. Her obsession with Jeff Jarret borders on cucking Mongo in public, but their relationship is strictly platonic. She just likes him as a wrestler, even though her husband hates him. Jarrett is dressed almost exactly the same way he was when he was the country music wannabe “Double J” Jeff Jarrett and is floundering in this role the same way he had and soon would in the WWF. If the best thing an announcer can say about you is “he’s an amazing athlete,” you’re D.O.A.

But here he is causing Horsemen drama, which Ric Flair and Arn Anderson constantly call out as pointless in a way that goes beyond kayfabe. In 1997, when the nWo can use all of the opposition it can get, WCW ground the Horsemen to a total stop for reasons unknown. That wouldn’t be the case for the entire year, but it is decidedly strange to see Ric Flair trapped in such a midcard angle, for him and Arn, two of the greatest wrestlers of all time, to stand there and watch while Benoit insists that Woman is better than Debra because she doesn’t have fake breasts. I know there have been worse iterations of the Four Horsemen than this, but this qualifies as one of the worst because it is, on paper, what I want in a modern Horsemen group: Flair and Arn, a technical guy, and a big dummy who wrecks shit.

None of this, I admit, is more worthy of attention than Guerrero vs. Malenko, but I’m getting my complaining in early.

Raven and The Sandman

In 1996, Raven took Sandman’s wife and son. In 1997, Sandman took Raven’s ECW World Heavyweight Championship belt. Of the two, Raven is the more emotionally distraught, appearing at shows and yelling “GIMME BACK MY BELT” into the microphone as a catalyst for whatever walk and brawl is on tap for the evening. Tonight, they’re going to fight. Not wrestle, but fight.

An issue that I’m going to have with ECW is that a lot of brawling just blends together for me. There’s nothing more or less violent about this fight between Raven and Sandman as there was the week before, which at least had the added benefit of appreciating the local architecture of Webster, Massachusetts.

The Blue World Order is involved, of course, but Joey Styles’ commentary makes their role in this angle extremely convoluted. He’s desperate to know if last week’s brawl, which saw Sandman leave the BWO locker room in a BWO t-shirt, means that Sandman is a member of the group, so everything the BWO does is either evidence that they still back Raven or that they’ve doublecrossed him.

ECW Raven Punches Big Stevie Cool

It’s neither, really. Stevie hits the Stevie Kick on Raven after getting punched in the mouth (like, actually punched), ending his allegiance with Raven’s Nest, and the interference is enough to allow Sandman to walk away with Raven’s belt. It’s weird how fights in wrestling are structured like wrestling matches.

Raven does there “Where’s my belt?” routine to Styles and commissioner Tod Gordon, who says he’s going to have to take it back ECW style. The general crux of the show is that Stevie Richards became a man, but it’s less fun because it already happened last week. I would have preferred to stay another 10 minutes in the Team Taz Dojo.

Matches of Note

WCW put Jim Duggan vs. Super Calo on the format but had Sting give Duggan the Scorpion Death Drop for questioning his manhood. This is the one time in my life I have hated Sting.

Sid vs. Shawn Michaels is fine for what it is, and the crowd is really into Michaels. There’s a lot of rest holds, but I’m always really impressed with HBK manages to superkick someone way taller than him. It’s the dumbest thing in the world to be like “daaaaaamn” about, but Sid’s chin is up there and Shawn’s leg doesn’t reach that high. Dude is jumping up there on one leg to give Sid some Sweet Chin Music, such does his hatred for the WWF Champion burn.

Alright. Eddie Guerrero vs. Dean Malenko. Everybody at commentary wants to talk about the Hogan/Giant match that will happen during the commercials of The New Adventures of Robin Hood, but the grappling up top is just too hot for that nonsense until Roddy Piper speaking the “ancient language of Gaelic” is brought up. Eddie and Dean spend the opening minutes of this match, and really the majority of it, jockying for position. When one of them hits a suplex or a senton or anything that isn’t a matter of positioning, it feels earned.

It is crazy to me that this was on a mainstream wrestling program in 1997. That it happened in an arena in front of thousands of fans. It’s just a midcard match (in theory), but WCW was capable of throwing something like this out there every week if they wanted to. They’re not unique in the history of North American wrestling in this—WWE could and did with Angle, Benoit, Lesnar, and Guerrero, and ECW did it with the same crew WCW threw out there. But on the other channel you’ve got Marc Mero, Goldust, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, and Jerry Lawler doing a half-baked combination of the WWF’s stolid brawling and Lawler’s worst Memphis heel impulses. It’s modern wrestling (in that it’s not Hulkamania era punches, kicks, and eyerakes), but if that’s modern, this is from the future.

There are issues, if you’re not just with this. Submissions feel like they go a touch long, which I wouldn’t notice were it not for a smattering of dumb-dumbs chanting “borring.” They’re wrong, but neither man seems to be wrestling for the audience. It’s neat for me, and probably for you: within the typical Nitro bubble of Hollywood Hogan babble and previews of a main event match that will go to a no contest, Eddie and Dean are building their own universe of hold and counterhold. Syxx is off in the distance, but it’s the extreme distance, barely visible as the two men exchange pin combinations.

Syxx matters to the finish though, as Guerrero sees him while he’s setting up for the frog splash, and the distraction allows Malenko to get a powerbomb pin for the win. It’s abrupt, which is the match’s real disappointment. Both men have so much more story to tell with each other, which is crazy to think about given how much they’d already accomplished together. I know we’re only two weeks in, but this is the early front-runner for match of the year.

The Greatest Year in the History of Our Sport is a 52-week project tracking the highs and lows of the WWF, WCW, and ECW. It updates on Sunday. The archive can be found here.